Created by the Center for Spirituality & Healing and Charlson Meadows.

Choosing Integrative Healthcare

Integrative healthcare utilizes the best therapeutic options from conventional Western medicine, as well as complementary therapies and healing practices, such as herbal medicine, acupuncture, massage, biofeedback, yoga, meditation, and stress reduction techniques. It offers a broad approach to healing that is patient-centered and focuses on the whole person-mind, body, and spirit.

While integrative healthcare offers great benefits, you do need to take an active role in educating yourself about the full spectrum of conventional and complementary therapies. In this section, we make some general recommendations for choosing an integrated approach to your healthcare. Condition-specific recommendations are made in subsequent sections.

Recommendations for an Integrated Approach

1) Get a thorough medical evaluation for any significant complaint

This is especially true for acute illnesses and trauma, which can often benefit from quick surgical or pharmaceutical intervention. (Indeed, they may be life-saving.)

It is also true for non-urgent situations, during which it is useful to know what the medical diagnosis and treatment options could be. In these cases, however, you have more time to consider your plan of care and explore treatments. Complementary therapies and healing practices may provide options that optimize the healing capacities of your body, minimize unpleasant side effects, help prevent further complications, or otherwise help you cope with illness, particularly chronic illness.

2) Communicate with your providers

You should always inform all providers in your team about the full scope of your healthcare practices: who you see, what kind of treatments you receive, what over-the-counter and/or prescription substances you take (including herbals, teas, nutritionals, vitamins), what diet you follow, what exercise you participate in, and so forth. Don't assume that your providers are communicating with each other.

Your goal is safe and coordinated care. Any products that are ingested can interact, especially with prescription drugs, although some types are much less problematic than others. In addition, some therapies can interfere with each other, and shouldn't be used at the same time. For example:

  • A high-dose vitamin that works to block free radicals (i.e. an antioxidant) may interfere with radiation treatment that works through free radical generation.
  • Acupuncture, a therapy that works through the movement of energies through the body, may interact with the application of other energetic interventions, like homeopathy.

If you are someone who regularly uses both natural medicines/supplements, and pharmaceuticals, consider developing a relationship with a pharmacist who has knowledge in supplements, and make them a member of your healthcare team.

3) Ask questions and do your research

Take charge of your health by always being an informed consumer. Ask questions about any proposed treatments.

  • What side effects or other risks are known to exist? Are there options with lower risks?
  • If a conventional medication is recommended and you wish to explore other options, are there risks to delaying the beginning of conventional drugs or surgery?
  • Most complementary therapies require commitment and active participation of the recipient, so ask about your role in the therapy. What will you need to do, how often, and at what cost, in order for this therapy to be effective?
  • How long should you try an intervention before evaluating if, or how well, it is working?

Safety and Effectiveness

It is especially important to investigate the safety of any healthcare service that is part of your care plan.

Ask what scientific evidence and clinical experience say about the safety and efficacy of any treatment, whether recommended by your physician or another provider. The strength of evidence must always be balanced out with the potential harm of an intervention, and we will take that into consideration whenever suggesting therapeutic options.

For more information about this, see the information in our Explore Healing Practices section. For each practice or therapy there, we discuss the evidence and give additional resources.

4) Select qualified providers

All care providers are not created equal. In addition to credentials and access, it is important to select providers with whom you feel comfortable and able to converse.

Ask about the education and credentialing of each practitioner caring for you. How much experience have they had with someone with your complaints? Because physicians are licensed and education is more standardized, it's generally easier to know if you are seeing an adequately trained doctor.

On the other hand, there are wide variations in training and credentialing for different types of integrative health providers. For each practice or therapy listed in our Explore Healing Practices section, we give information about how to find a credentialed provider and what qualifications to look for.

5) Consider time and money

Integration does not mean that you need to pursue all therapies simultaneously. It is important to prioritize your choices so that you achieve the best outcome.

With a serious diagnosis, such as cancer, immediate conventional interventions like surgery, chemotherapy, or radiation may take all of your time and energy. Some integrative approaches can be supportive in those situations, like mind/body practices for easing pain or anxiety, or nutrition to optimize your stamina.

In addition, you should consider your ability to access and pay for the therapies. All of our resources are limited. If access to healing practices and complementary therapies is important to you, remember them when (and if) you make choices about insurance plans, including healthcare resource accounts (HRSAs, MSAs). These may give you more flexibility and control over your therapeutic options.

Generally, prescription pharmaceuticals are more expensive than most natural products and over-the-counter substances, but if you have prescription drug coverage in your insurance, the out-of-pocket expense to you may be less with a prescription. These aren't the best reasons to choose one intervention over another, but they are considerations most of us can't afford to ignore.

6) Keep records

Keep a paper trail of your medical care, both complementary and conventional.

  • Ask for and file copies of labs and imaging studies.
  • Get copies of hospital discharge summaries.
  • Keep your own Personal Health Record about what practitioners you saw, when you saw them, what was done, and what kind of response you had. A Personal Health Record includes:
    • A written list of any medications and/or supplements or natural products you take, with the dosage and frequency-ideally in your wallet or purse.
    • Notes on any allergies or adverse reactions to drugs, supplements, or food products and additives.
    • An up-to-date list, with phone numbers and addresses, of all providers actively involved in your healthcare team, including doctors, pharmacists, dentists, therapists, health coaches, and complementary providers.

For help keeping records, see Navigate the Healthcare System for documents you can download.

7) Adopt a holistic perspective

While you may be dealing with a specific health challenge, don't forget about your whole body, mind, and spirit; as well as your values and passions in life. Health challenges can impact our understanding of who we are and guide us to prioritize decisions in our lives.

Many complementary therapies and healing practices can help your overall health and wellbeing, in addition to helping you deal with your specific health issue.

For example, yoga can provide specific, measurable benefits, such as increasing strength and flexibility and improving sleep habits. It can also provide more general benefits, such as an internal sense of mastery and a more accepting, less reactive approach to life. Practicing yoga can lead to reflection and understanding of what guides our choices in life.

Because many complementary therapies and healing practices arise from systems with different views of health, they can offer helpful new perspectives on health and even life. In addition, many healing practices explicitly consider the emotional and spiritual aspects of health, which often helps bring healing in the form of emotional peace or a renewed sense of meaning and purpose.

Expert Contributor: 
Karen Lawson, MD
Reviewed by: 
Archelle Georgiou, MD

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